A Publication of WTVP

Peoria Retro: A Peoria Retail Icon Evolves

Now a health care headquarters, once "downtown’s greatest retail symbol"

by Phil Luciano | Photos Courtesy Peoria Historical Society Collection, Bradley University Library |
Phil Luciano

When the last retailer decided to leave 124 SW Adams, Peoria mourned.

In late 1975, Carson Pirie Scott & Co. – heir to Schipper & Block and Block & Kuhl at that address, where retail had reigned since 1905 – revealed it would close in three months. The timing of the December announcement pained countless Peorians with beloved memories of Christmas festivities at “The Big White Store.”

Block and Kohl TruckThe Peoria Journal Star went so far as to run a front-page obituary for the place. The lamentation began, “This is no ordinary store closing. It is more than just another setback for downtown. This is the death of a tradition.”

Over the top? Not for generations of Peorians who knew the building – per the newspaper requiem – as “downtown’s greatest retail symbol,” the hub of a commercial swirl that had invigorated and connected the city for most of the 20th century.

Now, after a decades-long fade of downtown, the arrival of OSF HealthCare’s headquarters has injected new life into that site. Perhaps it can repeat as flashpoint for economic excitement downtown, much as a certain department store did 100-plus years ago.

Schipper & Block began in 1863 in Pekin when two German immigrants – John F. Schipper and Henry Block – opened a general store. In 1879, they added a location in Peoria, on South Adams Street. Sales exploded, prompting multiple relocations to sites with wider square footage.

In 1905, the operation decided to expand skyward. Schipper & Block built Peoria’s first steel structure, a seven-story wonder at Adams and Fulton Streets.

In 1914, Theodore Kuhl, a German immigrant who had first worked at the Pekin store as a salesman, rose to president. With Schipper dead, the store’s name was recast as Block & Kuhl, the Big White Store.

For decades, business would bustle on every story. The top floor featured The Skyline, a top-notch restaurant. Furniture could be found on the sixth floor, while the fifth floor hosted sporting goods, books and appliances. The fourth floor featured rugs and draperies from around the world, while the third floor spotlighted women’s clothes and shoes. The second floor catered to men and boys, while the first floor brimmed with accessories and fine jewelry, plus a busy luncheonette.

In its heyday, Block & Kuhl employed 500 people, nearly double that during the holidays. Staffers, expected to ooze refinement, routinely would be given letters from Theodore Kuhl. The tracts brimmed with line after line of advice, such as for salesmanship (“Be alive to every look and wish of those you are serving.”), courtesy (“Treat all customers alike, whether they purchase ten cents’ or ten dollars’ worth.”), and even health (“Good digestion makes a happy disposition.”).

Such admonitions today might seem quaint, but they apparently worked, as sales flourished. The building accommodated multiple expansions, and the company would grow to 19 stores in Illinois and Iowa.

Photo Collage: Photo of the Schipper and Black Building, Customers eating in a restaurant, a showroom and a couple working during lunch.

Meantime, for many central Illinoisans, a dedication to Block & Kuhl was forged in childhood, as the store’s yuletide traditions became part of families’ seasonal celebrations. During the Santa Claus Parade on the day after Thanksgiving, St. Nick would arrive with great pageantry – often on a horse-drawn carriage, sometimes on the Peoria Rocket train – then follow the route to Block & Kuhl. There, he’d clamber to the fifth floor, to chat with children daily through Christmas Eve. Amid the holiday merriment – Toytown overflowing with playthings, window displays dancing with snowflakes and elves, carols resonating through speakers — local children could be forgiven for believing that Santa lived not at the North Pole but at Block & Kuhl, at least for one month a year.

But the festive legacy ebbed over time. In 1961, Carson Pirie Scott & Co. took over the Block & Kuhl chain. The 1973 debut of Northwoods Mall lured many retailers, even Carson. At the approach of Christmas ’75, Carson confirmed the worst-kept secret in town: The downtown location would soon be shuttered.

The address would host successors – Jefferson Bank, Chase Bank – but no big retailers. The Big White Store was a store no more.

But it again crackles with momentum, thanks to OSF. Amid all the planning and work for the building’s rehab, along with the city’s hope for a downtown upsurge, Peoria might recall another of Theodore Kohl’s exhortations regarding 124 SW Adams St.: “The sun never shone on fairer prospects than those of The Big White Store … Bright opportunities are yours.”

*This story includes information from “Origin and History of Block and Kuhl Company”

Phil Luciano 

Phil Luciano is a senior writer/columnist
for Peoria Magazine and content
contributor to public television station WTVP